Glenn Cunningham (1909-1988), the "Kansas Ironman," was the world-record-holder in the mile race from 1934 until 1937. He was a member of the 1932 and 1936 U.S. Olympic teams.
Glenn Cunningham was born in Atlanta, Kansas on August 4, 1909. His father, Clint Cunningham, was a water-well driller who also did odd jobs. In February of 1916, Cunningham and his older brother Floyd were badly burned in an accidental fire in their schoolhouse. Floyd died from the burns, and doctors thought that Cunningham's legs were so badly burned that they would have to be amputated. However, he eventually recovered after a long battle. Cunningham regained his strength by running. By the time he was 12, he had beaten all the local high school runners. His legs remained deeply scarred, however. Throughout his life, he would have to massage them and spend time doing long warm-up exercises in order to maintain circulation. In addition, his injuries meant that he could never run smoothly or efficiently; he compensated with endurance and strength. It is interesting to speculate on how great he might have been if he had never been injured.
According to Cordner Nelson and Roberto Quercetani in The Milers, "The middle 1930s may well be the most exciting short period in the history of the 1500 and mile. It was a time of world records and surprises, a time of great improvement and uneasy uncertainty for individuals." No runner had yet broken the 4-minute barrier in the mile, but some, including Cunningham, came close. Frank B. Bowles wrote in the Biographical Dictionary of American Sports that Cunningham "may have run a sub-4 minute mile in high school, but this feat has never been authenticated."
Cunningham attended the University of Kansas, where he ran for the track team and won his first big race, the 1932 NCAA 1500 meters. That summer, he was selected for the U.S. Olympic track team. At the 1932 Olympics, held in Los Angeles, he came in fourth in the 1500 meter race.
In 1933, Cunningham graduated from the University with the highest academic record in his class. That same year, he won the AAU 800 meters with a time of 1:51.8, as well as the 1500 meters with a time of 3:52.3. In addition he won the NCAA mile for the second time, with a time of 4:9.8. Overall, he ran 20 races in Europe during that summer, as well as maintaining a busy indoor season and a hard outdoor season. That year, the first year he was called "Ironman," he was awarded the Sullivan Memorial Trophy, which was given annually to the most outstanding amateur athlete.
Cunningham went on to graduate school at the University of Kansas, then earned a master's degree from the University of Iowa in 1936, and a Ph.D. in physical education from New York University in 1940.
In 1934, public interest in the mile race was at an all-time high. Cunningham began a tough competition in the mile against Bill Bonthron of Princeton. According to Nelson and Quercetani, "Madison Square Garden had to turn away thousands of people who wanted to see [Cunningham and Bonthron]. Their exploits made headlines throughout the country." The two ran some very close indoor races, tying each other in setting a new indoor record of 3:52.2 in the 1500 meters, then were pitted against each other in the mile on June 16 at the first Princeton Invitational Games. This event consisted of only four races, which began at five in the evening, after the Yale-Princeton baseball game. Only three runners were slated to run in the mile: Bill Bonthron, Glenn Cunningham, and Gene Venzki; most of the crowd of 25,000 spectators expected Bonthron to win by a large margin.
For the first lap, Venzke was in the lead, with Cunningham closely following. After another half-lap, Cunningham passed him and was in the lead. Bonthron moved in close behind Cunningham, holding steady and seemingly ready to speed past him at the end of the race. In the third lap, however, Cunningham put on a burst of speed. Nelson and Quercetani wrote, "His scarred legs churned wildly, and he looked as if he had started the last lap. Around the turn he opened up an alarming gap of ten yards over Bonthron." By the time he reached the backstretch, he was 20 yards in front of Bonthron, and Venzke was far behind. The crowd forgot about cheering for Bonthron, the home favorite, and switched to yelling for Cunningham, trying at the same time to figure out just how fast he was running. On the home-stretch, he was 40 yards ahead of Bonthron and driving for the record. He tore through the tape with a time of 4:06.7, a new world record. He kept running for a 30-yard cool-down, then jogged back to the finish line, where Bonthron congratulated him. His new strategy of running the second half of the race faster than the first half had paid off. His lap times were 61.8, 64,0, 61,8, and 59.1.
Later that summer, however, at the NCAA championships in Los Angeles, Bonthron was ready for this tactic. When Cunningham speeded up after two laps, Bonthron speeded up with him, and so did Venzke. Although Venzke couldn't keep up, Bonthron could, and did. Cunningham was unable to get away from Bonthron, and according to Nelson and Quercetani, "Bonthron exploded with an un-beatable kick which shot him five yards past Cunningham in the space of about 30 yards." Bonthron also beat Cunningham on June 30, in Milwaukee; despite the fact that Cunningham had run the 1500 in 3:48.9, a time that would have set a new world record, Bonthron had run it even faster, in 3:48.8. According to Nelson and Quercetani, Cunningham said, "It's a strange feeling to break a world's record and still lose."
Cunningham came back in 1935 and won the AAU 1500 meters with a time of 3:52.1. He also won the Wanamaker Mile in 4:11.0, with Venzke in second place and Bonthron in third.
In 1936, he won the metric mile in the AAU meet and in the trials for that year's Olympics. Knowing that he would run in the Olympics, he was cautious, not wanting to peak his speed and running condition too early. He hung back, running slowly and not pushing the pace; in one race, he said, "I'm going to win, no matter if it's going to take me the whole night," according to Nelson and Quercetani. He won that race with an almost comically slow time of 4:46.8.
Cunningham's strategy of holding his speed in reserve seemed to work. At the Olympics, held in Berlin, he recorded his fastest-ever time in the 1500 meters-3:48.4, a new U.S. record-but unfortunately was outrun by Jack Lovelock of New Zealand, who set a new world record with his time of 3:47.8. Cunningham said of Lovelock, "He must be the greatest runner ever," according to Nelson and Quercetani.
In 1937 and 1938, Cunningham won the AAU title again, making 1938 the fifth time he had won the event-four of which wins were in successive years.
Nelson and Quercetani noted that Cunningham admired endurance, and quoted him as saying, "If you stay in the running-if you have endurance-you are bound to win over those who haven't." In addition to endurance, runners need the skill of pacing. No one can sprint for a mile, so mile runners have to plan how they will spread out their effort over the distance so that they can complete it in as short a time as possible without burning out before the finish. On March 3, 1938, at the age of 28, Cunningham showed his endurance and his pacing when he ran an unofficial, but outstanding, mile in 4:04.4. It happened on the track at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. The track there was known to be fast, and it was large, with only six-andtwo-thirds laps to a mile. This meant that runners could run faster on the wide turns than they could on the tighter turns of a smaller track. Cunningham had a plan for this race; he would run his first three quarter-miles in 60, 63, and 61 seconds, and then go all out on the last quarter.
He ran the first quarter in 58.5, and worried that he had run it too fast and would not have the speed later when he needed it. He slowed down slightly and passed the half-mile on schedule. He hit the three-quarter mark in 3:04.2, and later said of that point, "I felt quite fresh," according to Nelson and Quercetani. On the last quarter he pushed himself to run as fast as possible, and hit the tape at 4:04.4, two seconds faster than anyone had ever run the mile before. The time was reported on the front page of the New York Times. However, track officials discounted the record because it was made on a large track. This was unfortunate; as Nelson and Quercetani pointed out, track insiders had long predicted that Cunningham would run that fast. Cunningham's unofficial record was not beaten until 1955.Only a few days later, on March 12, Cunningham ran the Columbia Mile in 4:07.4, an official indoor record.
In 1939, he won the Baxter Mile for the fifth time, the Wanamaker Mile for the sixth time, the BAA indoor mile for the ninth time, and beat famed two-milers Don Lash and Greg Rice in 9:11.8.
In 1940, his last season of competition, Cunningham wanted to win his last 1500-meter race and retire on a high note. However, as Nelson and Quercetani wrote, "The parade of great milers never stands still. No matter who is on top, ambitious young men are plotting to overthrow him." At the race, held in Fresno, California, Cunningham was up against some of the best new track talent, including Walter Mehl, who was an impressive two-miler who had won the Big Ten title in the mile in 1939.
Cunningham set the pace from the start, and the younger runners trailed him. The crowd of 14,000 fully expected to see him win, and cheered him on. Nelson and Quercetani wrote, "This was the master, at his peak for his last race, running with the grace and power of old, setting a pace as stiff as any he had ever run except for his "freak" 4:04.4. Actually, the spectators were surprised to see anyone staying close behind." They did stay, and in the home-stretch, Mehl strode past Cunningham. Cunningham had beat his own 1500-meter record with a time of 3:48, but came in second to Walter Mehl, whose time was 3:47.9.
From 1940 to 1944, Cunningham worked as physical education director at Cornell College, after which he served for two years in the U.S. Navy. Cunningham married Ruth Sheffield, in the summer of 1947. Although he might have used his name as a star athlete to make a great deal of money, he was more interested in helping others than in making a fortune. He and his wife opened the Glenn Cunningham Youth Ranch and over the next three decades, raised over 10,000 foster children, ten children of their own, and two daughters from Cunningham's earlier marriage. As Frank B. Bowles wrote in Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, "With virtually no outside help, the couple handled the youngsters with old-fashioned patience and tolerance." Cunningham often went on speaking tours as a lay preacher.
Because Cunningham had won 21 out of 31 races at Madison Square Garden, and set his best indoor mile there in 1938 with a time of 4:07.4, he was named the most outstanding track athlete to compete at the Garden during its first 100 years. Cunningham was elected to the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. He died in Menifee, Arkansas on March 10, 1988.
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Hanley, Reid M., Who's Who in Track and Field, Arlington House, 1973.
Hickok, Ralph, A Who's Who of Sports Champions, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Krise, Raymond and Bill Squires, Fast Tracks: The History of Distance Running, Stephen Greene Press, 1982.
Nelson, Cordner and Roberto Quercetani, The Milers, Tafnews Press, 1985.